Wednesday 27 May 2009

Ladies of Leisure (1930)

Director: Frank R Capra
Stars: Barbara Stanwyck, Lowell Sherman, Ralph Graves and Marie Prevost

There's a rather rambunctious party going on in Jerry Strong's penthouse studio on 51st St in New York. Drunken young ladies are spraying the paintings, being painted themselves and even throwing bottles at the passers by in the street below. The only person who doesn't seem to be drunk and enthusiastic at this party is Jerry Strong himself, who ducks out to take a drive at four o'clock in the morning, only to get a flat tyre and discover Kay Arnold escaping from a yacht in a rowboat. He drives her back to New York and finds inspiration in the process.

Now Jerry may be the only son of the governor but he fully plans to be an artist and he hires Kay at two bucks an hour to model for a picture he plans to call Hope. She slept on his shoulder in the car, you see, and she let the real Kay come to the fore, someone he desperately wants to paint on his canvas. The catch is that she's far from what you'd expect in a picture called Hope. She describes herself as a party girl, which euphemism is never fully defined but is reinforced as the film goes on. And as the film goes on, Kay rapidly falls for Jerry while Jerry doesn't see anything except the picture he hasn't painted yet.

The film is rough and unpolished and falls very much between the cracks between two eras. It's technically a precode, being released in 1930 and certainly skirting common precode themes, but it doesn't feel like one at heart, leaving things carefully unspoken that would be made far more obvious in the true precode era or shying away from darker results. It was made simultaneously with sound and without, but it doesn't play like a silent at all, even when you factor in the fact that there isn't a soundtrack beyond the odd instance of a player piano churning out its music. Most of all though, the difference is most apparent in the choice of the two leads.

Jerry is played by Ralph Graves, who was a Frank Capra regular at this point, having made five features for him between 1928 and 1931. Luckily I've seen a couple of these, so realise that he could be a powerful leading man of action who fit well opposite Jack Holt in aviation films like Flight and Dirigible. I'm sure that Submarine, also with Holt for Capra, won't disappoint either. But here, he's out of place for most of the film, very much a relic in his stagy portrayal of a stagy character. He'd been in film since 1918 with over 70 titles to his credit in the intervening twelve years, but he'd fade as a leading man as sound took over.

On the other hand, Kay is played by a future name reasonably fresh to the business: Barbara Stanwyck. This was only her fourth film, her third with a credit and even Capra had dismissed using her in this one, being persuaded only by a screen test for a different picture that her husband at the time incited Capra to see. She's as rough and unpolished as anything else in this film but she has many scenes that show the beginnings of her future greatness. In particular the shady nature of her character, however redeemed she becomes, is a pointer to her real precodes, a long string of them which begin with her next film, 1931's Illicit and include a couple more Capras: The Miracle Woman and Forbidden.

There's able support from both sexes: Lowell Sherman as a drunken friend of Jerry's called Bill Standish; and the always reliable Marie Prevost as Dot Lamar, Kay's roommate and fellow golddigger. In fact these two provide the best line of the movie. Dot explains to Bill that they only have two books in their apartment, the phone book and Bradstreet; when Bill asks if she'd looked him up she replies, 'Sure, you're only in the phone book.'

Frank Capra, one of the most important American film directors of all time, found a very fulfilling niche but he hadn't found it in 1930 and his early films are usually interesting but anomalous. This one fits that description perfectly: it's fascinating viewing for the film fan and there's much here that lesser hands would have floundered with. Yet it doesn't have a real place in time: it's way too clumsy and realistic to be a silent but not daring enough to be a precode. It's a film from a lost period that just never got lost.

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